Universal Credit Prompts ‘Horrific’ Surge In Foodbank Demand

On a street lined with rows of multi-million pound Edwardian houses and Mercedes, Porsches and BMWs, lies the Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank in South West London.

Housed within a church and open twice a week, the foodbank helps hundreds of people a year with emergency parcels.

Despite its unlikely location, the wealthy London borough’s part in the roll out of Universal Credit has seen demand across the area’s three foodbanks soar by 94%, figures seen by HuffPost UK reveal.

Sitting at a table looking at the list of tinned and fresh goods available with her daughter and grand-daughter is Maggie Millard.

“I’ve been here four times since the beginning of last month,” the 57-year-old tells HuffPost. “I was moved from [Employment Support Allowance] and onto Universal Credit. As soon as that happened, I just couldn’t pay the rent. I didn’t have enough.”

Through tears, she explains how the government’s cap in housing benefit means she does not receive enough Universal Credit to cover the full rent on her council-owned home of 20 years.

″I went into arrears straight away,” she says. “Now they say I’ll have to pay half the rent, but what about money for everything else?”

Since moving onto the new benefits regime, which has been rolled out in the borough since June 2016, Maggie has been forced to seek emergency help for basics like food and heating.

She’s been attending the food bank for a month, in which time she has been directed to support from Citizens Advice, who are helping her navigate the myriad of confusing rules Universal Credit imposes.

“People here have been great, so, so helpful,” she says. “Other places make you feel like you’ve crawled out from a rock.”

“There are so many more Maggies,” food bank manager Daphine Aikens says. “It’s been brutal. Some people have been made to wait 12 weeks. People have nothing.”

“We had a mum with children, everything stopped when she moved to Universal Credit,” she adds. “She had nothing and within two weeks she had no food. The family didn’t eat one weekend and her child was wandering the streets stealing food from bins.”

Aikens, who oversees three food banks across the area, revealed that the entire service helped feed 2,364 people in the first half of 2016. The same figure for 2017, after the roll out of Universal Credit began, was 4,601. An increase of around 94%.

“It’s been horrendous. The reality is we’re seeing people who have not eaten for days, who can’t pay their rent, who are starving, and they’re borrowing,” she says. “Whereas once we’d see someone in their hour of need once or twice, we see them now multiple times. It’s so much worse.”

The Hammersmith and Fulham service is part of the Trussell Trust foodbank network, which revealed on Tuesday that the average surge in demand across all its centres in Universal Credit full service areas was 30%, when compared with a year ago.

Comparative analysis of foodbanks not in full Universal Credit rollout areas showed an average increase of 12%.

“We’re seeing soaring demand at foodbanks across the UK,” Mark Ward, Interim Chief Executive at The Trussell Trust, says. “The simple truth is that even with the enormous generosity of our donors and volunteers, we’re concerned foodbanks could struggle to meet demand this winter if critical changes to benefit delivery aren’t made now.

“People cannot be left for weeks without any income, and when that income does come, it must keep pace with living costs – foodbanks cannot be relied upon to pick up the pieces.”

The Trust says that, between 1st April and 30th September 2017, its network distributed 586,907 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis, compared to 519,342 during the same period last year. Some 208,956 of these went to children.

The charity is calling for an end to the benefit freeze and for solutions to administration problems to reduce the numbers of Universal Credit claimants finding themselves plunged into crisis.

Back in South West London, outside the church just before opening, a queue of four people, one, a mother pushing a pram, forms expectantly before opening.

Passersby going about their business on a recent weekday afternoon seem unaware of the bank’s existence.

Aitken is adamant more can be done by government to improve the situation, and to stop people going hungry – at least.

“It can’t be right that in a first-world country and in a first-world city that people are going hungry like this,” she says. “The six week wait needs to end, we need to look at the loan repayments.

“As it is, this system is just trapping people in a cycle of poverty. It really isn’t making things better.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: The reasons for food bank use are wide and complex, and for this report to link it to any one issue would be misleading.

“We’re clear that advance payments are widely available from the start of anyone’s Universal Credit claim, and urgent cases are fast-tracked so no one should be without funds. We know the majority of Universal Credit claimants are confident in managing their money. Budgeting support and direct rent payments to landlords are also available to those who need them.”